While football rules the sporting roost in most countries across the world, on the global stage, it remains dominated by Europe and South America. However, under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, China is launching a footballing project of unmatched ambition anywhere in the world.
By 2050, Xi wishes to see China not only qualify for the World Cup (which ‘Team Dragon’ has only managed once before, in 2002), but also to host, and eventually win the tournament
Xi is only too aware that, despite being one of the world’s foremost superpowers in the economic and political sphere, in terms of soft power, China is lagging behind. Just as sport framed the ideological outputs of the 20th Century, the Chinese premier believes that the Beautiful Game is a way of potentially winning the propaganda war today. But how feasible is this idea of becoming a global power in football?
The most visible aspect of this project so far, has undoubtedly been the prodigious spending undertaken by Chinese Super League teams in recent seasons. The sheer scale of the spending has raised eyebrows in more established footballing nations, with many questioning the sustainability of the model.
Indeed, it even initially, took the authorities in China by surprise and they have implemented measures to work towards the development of young Chinese players in pursuit of their broader aims. Those being: creating a powerhouse domestic league based on homegrown players and a national side that can challenge for major honours.
Stricter limits are now in place on the amount of overseas players allowed on the pitch in a match, and teams now must field at least one domestic under-23 player per game in the CSL.
There is also a 100% tax on foreign signings, essentially doubling transfer fees for overseas players.
However, there is no doubt that the influx of foreign players and managers has had some positive impacts in the short-term.
Attendances, while not yet on a par with those of the Premier League or the Bundesliga, are rising, from under 19,000 in 2014 to around 24,000 in 2016 and 2017, a rise of 26 per cent.
Developing interest in the domestic game is particularly crucial given that traditionally, Chinese football fans have been much more interested in European and South American football than their own nation’s leagues.
It can also be argued that playing with big-name overseas players has helped the national team in recent years as well.
After an absence of 16 years, China (under the stewardship of veteran Italian manager Marcello Lippi) returned to the final group stage of the Asian World Cup qualifiers, and performed creditably, only missing out on a play-off spot by a point, and an automatic place in Russia by three points.
The strong finish came just too late after a slow start to the campaign.
There is a long way to go, and ultimately, striking a balance between nurturing talented players and developing the CSL’s profile, as well as its sustainability, will be one of the biggest challenges in the years ahead. But despite this World Cup 2018 qualification setback, China appears to be broadly on track with their development plan.
What goes unnoticed by many outsiders is the great efforts being placed on grassroots football in China. Football is now a part of the national curriculum in schools, meaning that the game will be played by more youngsters than ever before. As such, the Chinese Football Association hope to have 50 million people playing the game by 2020, with 20,000 training facilities (rising to 50,000 by 2025) and 70,000 pitches planned to accommodate them.
Taking a leaf out of the USA’s book, some of these centres (including Guangzhou Evergrande’s ($185 million ‘football factory’) also incorporate education, with scholarships available to talented youngsters, in an attempt to persuade the millions of ‘tiger parents’ up and down the country that football is a viable career choice.
All this said, it is vital that quality homegrown coaches and managers are developed alongside quality players. And the likes of Barcelona, Celtic and Juventus have been quick to fill the void by establishing their own overseas academies in China. But in some senses we’ve been here before.
Chengdu Blades became the first foreign-owned Chinese side with the Chengdu Sports Centre becoming home to the familiar red and white colours and steel city crest of their owners Sheffield United.
Under the progressive ownership of local businessman Kevin McCabe, Sheffield United embarked on an ambitious plan for global expansion spearheaded by Head of Football Operations John Stephenson and his dynamic International Academy Director Gordon Young, a progressive coach and administrator just returned to these shores as caretaker manager of Scottish side Falkirk.
Under Gordon Young’s watchful eye, Sheffield United had boasted links, at various times, to Hungarian side Ferencváros, Estudiantes in Argentina, São Paulo in Brazil, in Norway, in Belgium, in India and to Central Coast Mariners in Australia. But Sheffield United’s ambitions were none so large than with the full ownership of the Sichuan side.
Nominally, the partnership relied on the conceit that the Chinese club would ultimately produce players for the Sheffield United Academy and the first team, back in England. The reality is that the commercial potential of creating a bridgehead into the largest untapped market in world football seemed boundless for an ambitious brand-builder like Kevin McCabe.
But the plan never reached maturity. in 2009, Chengdu Blades and Guangzhou Pharmaceutical (later to become Guangzhou Evergrande), were demoted from the CSL to the China League for match-fixing in the lower division, in a retrospective punishment.
The Sheffield United experiment scored better as development concept. Fifteen academy trainees went on to play first team football while an U17 side excelled domestically.
Dr Robert Webb, of the Nottingham University Business School, understands more than most the complex commercial and professional assumptions that govern relationships both east and west.
As a lifelong Sheffield United fan, a former youth prospect at both Nottingham Forest and Leeds United and an academic specialising in engaging with Chinese universities, businesses and student recruitment, Nottingham University’s Associate Dean for Global Engagement and Recruitment says that the Chinese are playing a longer game.
He says: “We’re accustomed to thinking of China as an economic powerhouse that excels at rapid transformation. And while this is evident when looking at how many high rise buildings have been built or the astonishing bullet train – changing attitudes towards football will take time, as other sports are more embedded in Chinese culture.”
Dr Webb says that the comparison should not be with Germany or Iceland but rather with a continent like Africa that despite creating notable successes in player development is still some way off producing teams that can win World Cups.
He says: “China doesn’t have 140+ years of football history to fall back on. So, they’re learning from us, absorbing our methods, our culture, our coaching, our football business. But the subtleties, the nuance will take time, despite all the money. It needs to be cultivated, similar to the way China has embraced western education. It will come, but in a longer time-frame. Remember football has just not been culturally important to China. Walking around large Chinese cities you do not see people wearing the strip of the local football team – and many of these cities have populations of way over 10 million.”
Even with the efforts to increase playing time for young Chinese players, Chinese football is still reliant on foreign knowledge in the dugout, with the national team and many CSL side employing a majority of overseas coaches and managers.
What is the current state of the game in China? Despite these efforts, it is safe to say that there are potential storms ahead. Last year, 13 of the top flight’s 16 teams were threatened with expulsion for breaches of financial regulations.
While all 13 teams quickly (and rather opaquely) managed to resolve this issue, retail giant Suning, which owns CSL side Jiangsu Suning along with Inter Milan, was the subject of particular scorn from state television relating to their purchase of the Italian giants.
Chinese politics is often a notoriously murky business, and with attempts being made to prevent capital flight in recent years, the government is concerned about a number of football-related deals. How will all of this will affect Chinese football going forward really is anyone’s guess.
No doubt though, this is also a very important historical juncture for China.
Economically, the nation has been riding the crest of a wave over the past few decades, but it seems like the days of easy growth are coming to an end. What will happen if China’s economy starts to falter? Will there still be enough will in government circles to continue with this grand football project, or will attentions shift to other areas of national interest? My hunch is that football, top class football, as a symbol of China’s cultural identity and ambitions is here to stay.
As with all long-term political projects guaranteed success are both very hard to predict and hard to socially engineer. And especially so within the sporting realm.
For all the planning in government offices, for all the investment, at the end of the day, it is the players themselves who will determine the success or failure of China’s football blueprint.
China’s under-23s crashed out of the AFC U-23 Championships after losing to Qatar in Changzhou, Jiangsu province in January 2018. It is a result that can only be conceived as a setback.
On the one hand, the efforts that Germany and Iceland placed on youth development around the turn of the millennium are now being vindicated by the respective nations’ golden generations of the present day. On the other, China’s football culture in many ways resembles those of the USA, Japan and South Korea in the 1980s and 1990s. And none of those nations are credible world powers in football at the present time.
As the world’s most populous nation, the potential talent pool that Chinese football has at its disposal is enormous. However, turning this potential into results on the pitch on the global stage will be another matter entirely.
Jack Noone is a a football writer based in Xiamen, China.